Just to warn all my readers ahead of time, this post is a little different than most of my others. It is quite personal and also doesn’t relate to being eco-friendly (but does still relate to being an expat). I still hope that you will read this and get some benefit from my hardships. Now, on to the post!
This may come as a shock to my readers that are not expats, but living abroad is actually quite difficult. Moving to a new home is always hard, but moving to a new country–with a new language, working culture, transportation systems, food, etc–is a major challenge that should not be taken lightly. Things are even more difficult if you move to the new country alone; this means you have no local support system to help when things get really bad.
Those who know me well know that I have been struggling to enjoy Korea as much as I enjoyed Japan and Vietnam. In addition to having issues with adjusting to the new culture, my new job was far from what was advertised and the working environment was toxic at best. Unfortunately, as expats, we often don’t have the ability to just quit a job if there is a problem, so the situation wasn’t one that could be resolved quickly or easily.
When I finally was able to find a job that suited me better, I had to fight to be able to leave my first position. And that fight continued for about six months after I left the first position. It caused me so much stress and anxiety that it was difficult for me to think of other things. I gained weight and started to lose my hair. Eventually, I had to hire a lawyer to deal with the situation (and we all know those don’t come cheap!)
In addition to moving to a new city only months after an international move and struggling with culture shock and stress from my working situation, I suffered the loss of a family member. Before his passing, I rushed home to say goodbye, and with that, the last of my savings was depleted. Unable to take additional time off of work for Christmas, I was stuck in Korea alone. All of these things combined–along with the fact that being new means no local support system yet– pushed me further and further into depression and as the grey of winter settled in, I fought to stay a step back from the cliff.
So, how did I stay afloat? Well, read on to find out!
- Find something small to be happy about every single day
For those of you that don’t know, I am a conversation professor in Daegu. While looking for TED talks to use for one of my upcoming lessons, I came across this video: Happy Maps by Daniele Quercia. In the video, he talks about taking a slightly longer but more relaxing or interesting route to work increases happiness. After teaching the lesson, I followed the advice from the video and took a longer but more scenic route. While walking home, I forced myself to notice some things that I hadn’t noticed before. I started to appreciate a few small things along the new route: things like the tiny red berries on the bushes that contrasted so beautifully when all the other colors were grey and drab. When you are broke, depressed, and homesick, I urge you to notice at least one small thing to be happy about every single day.
- Try out some free/cheap local activities or places to go
I consider myself to be very solidly on the ‘introvert’ end of the spectrum, however, like many introverts, I need some kind of socializing. For nearly seven months after moving to Korea, the only interactions I had had outside of work were the occasional weekends that my SO wasn’t working. Right around the time that I started to sink, my SO had to leave the country for work, so I was without my sole source of comfort and socialization. It took awhile for me to talk myself into leaving my apartment, but when I did, I was happy that I did.
The first thing that I tried was joining a board gaming club at a local coffee shop on Saturdays. I have loved playing tabletop games my whole life, but hadn’t had a chance to play since moving to Korea. This weekly event (which didn’t cost anything) turned out to be the ONLY thing I liked in Korea for a long time and it really helped me get through the hard times. It was the one thing that I looked forward to every single week. If you are struggling, I encourage you to find a social activity that gets you out of your house and head. You can find these activities and events on social networking sites, on sites like Meetup, or if you can read the local language, in your town newspaper.
- De-clutter a space in your place
To a lot of people, clutter is just a fact of life. Who doesn’t have a few things out of place in their home on a day-to-day basis? “Clutter is just proof that someone lives here!” I’ve heard people say. Unfortunately, clutter is actually more than just those books on your ‘to-read’ pile on your coffee table, the opened but still unpaid bills on the dining table, and the empty take-out containers. Underneath it all is a slew of physical and mental health dangers that scientists are becoming more aware off. In this article, the author talks about how clutter affects us and–more importantly–how de-cluttering can make us healthier and happier.
When I was struggling, I made a goal to de-clutter five things–any five things, no matter how large or small–from my house every day. My heart and house were both cleansed by the small action. It felt like I was discarding a tiny negative thought out with each thing I parted with.
- Do something creative: Write, draw, sew, make origami
Whatever creative thing that you like to do, do it. Start small if you have to, but try. If you like writing, commit to one sentence, one paragraph a day, whatever you can honestly commit to, to get started. Keeping a journal can help you clear your head and get your thoughts in order and realize that things are not as bad as they appear to be. Another study shows that playing or listening to music can help those with depression by lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels.
When I was really struggling, I fell back onto my favorite creative outlet: scrap booking. The ability to take items as pieces, make a plan, then put the parts together to make a beautiful page gave me that one aspect of my life that I felt I could control. The rest felt easier knowing that I had this outlet. Whatever your creative outlet is (music, drawing, sewing, painting, cooking, singing….whatever), use it to help you become yourself again.
- Learn a new skill
I love learning, I really do. But when I was down, I didn’t have the energy to dive into my normal methods for learning (reading a research article on whatever topic interests me that day). I needed to feel a sense of productivity. Learning new facts that I wouldn’t be able to produce something with afterwards was not making me happy at the time. I needed something more, something that would give me a finished product.
It was then that I turned to blogging. I decided to set up this blog to help others learn from my mistakes of trying to be green and my mistakes regarding living in different cultures. I could see the effects of my work each time I clicked the mouse or typed something new. I could feel my heart lifting every time I shared a new experience with others or learned how to edit photos to add to my posts. The thought that I was learning AND producing something all for myself helped combat the nasty voice in my head telling me what a bad person I am.
You don’t have to learn how to blog as I did. You can start with smaller steps, like learning to make a new dessert or how to fix a button on your shirt. It doesn’t matter what you choose to learn as long as you learn something. The pride that comes with making or fixing something by hand is something we all share and it is something that can remind you how capable you are.
- Grow something
You may think that it takes a lot of space and equipment to grow things, but actually, it really takes very little of both. One of my goals for this year was to reduce my food waste (which, admittedly is not going as well as I had hoped) and one of the ways of doing that was to regrow food from some of my scraps. Even when I lived in Sendai, I took such joy in growing the few plants I had. It was so incredible to see bright green growing from dirt or from things I would normally throw away.
Now, if you are short on space and cash, you can use your scraps to grow a bit of extra food on your veranda–which in turn, saves you a bit of money. In Korea, I have regrown carrot greens (from the tops) and green onions on my veranda. On my balcony in Japan, I grew cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, basil, mint, and green onions. To regrow your food, you can use old glass jars and then recycle them when you decide to move. Seeing the growth of something new at your own hands is a good way to help you climb out of your slump.
- Be physically active
This was a hard one for me. How could I be physically active when I felt so tired and down all the time? I knew that I needed to be active, but how could I start? I started off with something I knew I used to love: swing dance. I hadn’t danced in a long time (not since coming to Korea), but I used to love it. So, I looked up a choreographed dance that I had learned in Japan (The Tranky Doo). It took a few tries to get it right, but I eventually got back into the groove of it.
Doing this small thing helped me remember how much I used to love dancing and I started to dance regularly–zumba at home and swing dance downtown on Friday nights.
Being physically active has the added benefit that once you start, it is easier to continue being active because of the positive vibes we get from the endorphins. Once I got back into the groove on the dance floor, I also felt good enough to tackle some other physical challenges I had been putting off: hiking some of Korea’s numerous mountains. So whatever it is that you like doing, get up and move. There is a good chance you won’t be able to stop.
So anyway, these seven things are the ways I keep myself afloat when I feel myself sinking down too deep. Now, I am doing much better and am able to enjoy a few things around Korea as well.
What about you? What things do you do to bring yourself back to a happier mindset?